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Here’s What To Do If You Lose Your Retainer

Don’t freak out. But don’t just let your lost retainer go, either.

Sara Coughlin
Contributing Writer

On his way to the movie theater on a date, Harry J., then 15 years old, realized he’d forgotten his all-important retainer case. “In a panic, I grabbed a tissue from the car and stuffed the retainer in my pocket. Movie finished, we both went our separate ways, and I decide it is safe to put the retainer back in,” Harry, now 30 and living in Los Angeles, tells Word of Mouth.

“I reach into my pocket, but no retainer. I turn out all of my pockets. I try and get let back into the cinema, but nothing. I checked the trash cans in the bathroom. I looked under seats. Nothing.”

As anyone who’s ever been in Harry’s position knows all too well, the lost retainer felt like a huge deal. “My parents had spent an arm and a leg on braces over the years — my dad had reminded me a few times,” he says. “I was worried that my teeth would immediately revert back to their pre-metal position.”

Even if you aren’t a panicked 15-year-old, it can be hard to know exactly what to do when you lose your retainer. But if you ever do find yourself in this predicament, whether your parents paid for your teeth-straightening treatment or you did, don’t stress out.

“It’s not an emergency,” Dr. Billie Zoldan, an orthodontist based in New York City, tells Word of Mouth. But she’s quick to note that you should still remedy the issue as soon as you can. Here’s what to do.

1. Get in touch with your orthodontist ASAP.

Once you get over the initial surprise of losing your retainer (and finish tearing your house apart looking for it), get in touch with your orthodontist as soon as you can. What does a retainer do? It plays a major role in keeping your teeth in place once they’ve been straightened, Dr. Zoldan explains — which means that without it, your teeth may begin to relapse, shifting slowly out of place due to the different forces at work in your mouth.

“The body wants to go back to where it came from,” as she puts it.

In fact, orthodontic treatment isn’t really complete without retention afterwards. Active tooth movement — when you have braces on your teeth, for example, or you’re wearing invisible aligners 22 hours a day — is only the first phase. Then comes retention, or the “passive” phase of treatment, when the teeth are held in place in order to let the supporting periodontal tissue adapt to their new position, minimizing the risk that the hard work you’ve put in is gradually undone. Researchers are still working to identify all of the factors that may affect post-treatment relapse, but it would appear that going without your appliance belongs on that list.

By the way: When you tell your orthodontist what happened, don’t feel too bad. Dr. Zoldan estimates that at least one in four patients loses their retainer at some point. And she’s heard every retainer sob story you can imagine, from getting flushed down the toilet to getting run over by a car to getting lost in the bowels of a cave. (Yes, a cave.) So no matter how outlandish your story is, your orthodontist has almost definitely heard something similar.

2. Be prepared to replace your old retainer.

One 2007 meta-analysis shows that the precise risk of relapse following orthodontic treatment can be difficult to predict from patient to patient, and Dr. Zoldan says that it’s unknown exactly when or to what extent someone’s teeth will start to shift out of place once they stop wearing their retainer.

“Everyone is different and everyone’s teeth move differently,” she says, adding that “certain cases move quicker than others.” (For example, she notes that “patients that start with spacing or severe crowding tend to rebound the fastest” once they get a new retainer.)

Luckily, relapse doesn’t happen instantly, so you have some time. Plus, review after review has suggested that more research is required in order to determine exactly how long a period of retention should be prescribed in the first place. But while there’s no hard-and-fast formula that shows how long you can go without wearing your retainer before you see unwanted movement, it’s safe to assume that your teeth will move after you lose your retainer.

Once you reach out to your orthodontist, they’ll need to take a new dental impression or intraoral scan in order to create your replacement retainer. From there, Dr. Zoldan explains that how much a new retainer costs can range between $200 and $500 per arch (aka your lower or upper jaw), depending on what kind of appliance you need. She adds that putting off your replacement appointment will only cost you more down the line. It depends on exactly how long you wait, but if you brush off a lost retainer like it’s nothing, you could end up spending thousands of dollars to essentially restart your teeth straightening process all over again.

(Oh, and by the way: Definitely don't try to DIY your own retainer.)

3. Make sure to have some perspective.

You’re not in middle school anymore. You should feel free to skip the part where you feel awkward and ashamed about losing your retainer. As long as you act quickly and work with your orthodontist to replace it, this will be little more than a blip on your teeth’s radar. And speaking from personal experience, as someone who lost her retainer while playing Sims 2 at a friend’s house in seventh grade, I can assure you that your parents won’t actually kill you.  

Billie Zoldan, DDS, orthodontist.
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